What's Up With Slaine?
Comics are such an immediate art form. In a way being a comics critic takes you out of that aspect of it because you put yourself on this robotic analyzer mode, studying the component parts of the whole before you get past panel one. But it's impossible to deny the ability of a medium that arrests the eyes and tells stories at the same time. Comics is a medium of crouched assaults, waiting on racks and in longboxes and flickr streams to break down the reader's critical mindset -- the part that gives readers apprehension of plot and character and the rest through the chaos of multiple images depicting different aspects of the same thing, the part that differentiates the good from the bad from the excellent within the medium rather than just being bowled over by the profusion of pictures on pages. What I'm saying, basically, is that even though doing comics criticism has pushed me into this clinical way of thinking about the medium that kicks in whenever I open one up, this crazy thing we call comics is still strong and strange enough to overwhelm all that and show me something that makes it so all I can think is This is crazy!
Not good. Not bad. Just crazy.
It's funny to think about, but copies of 2000AD -- the sci-fi inflected Brit anthology that birthed Frank Quitely and Mark Millar and Warren Ellis, the comic that forms the backbone and history of the mainstream UK comics world in the post-punk rock era -- are almost astonishingly arcane objects here in America. As I understand it the magazine's facing the same problem as mainstream US superhero comics: aging fans, shrinking market, no new readers coming in. Like Marvel and DC, it's not what it used to be, but it does fine for itself acrtoss the pond. To get from there to here though, it also has to take on considerable shipping costs, a brutal currency conversion, Diamond distribution, and a whole different market, one where the words "Judge Dredd" either conjure up hazy images of Sylvester Stallone or blank stares. 2000AD is pretty much a failed enterprise in America, never much talked about, rarely featuring creators that garner any attention over here, and distributed in these weird "multi-packs", which bundle multiple issues of the weekly periodical together in an effort at cost-cutting that doesn't feel much like a bargain when you're putting your dollars up against a book that's priced in British pounds. Long story short, shops don't order it. If I were to decide I wanted a copy of CF's new City-Hunter magazine, say -- a self-published xerox minicomic made in tiny amounts by one guy living all the way across the country -- it would be a lot easier for me to get my hands on one than the latest installment (or any recent installment) of the series that's been the crown jewel of Britcomics for over three decades.
That inaccessibility is probably the biggest reason that the stuff going on in "Slaine", 2000AD's stalwart barbarian feature (18 years and running under the sure hand of writer Pat Mills!) feels so utterly, savagely foreign. It's mainstream comics split off from the bough of the kind we get here, a completely different tradition of wish-fulfillment violence and puritanical sex-teases and epic/simplistic thinking than the caped kind we get in such excess over here. Six-page hits of witless cruelty and near-plotless splattercore violence, it's like a condensed version of everything that's both wrong and exciting about American fighting comics, pure sleazy thrills without the six issues of exposition that allow grown-ass men like myself to justify their enjoyment of bone-crushing fight scenes that make them feel like they might have just peed a little bit.
But I don't want to complain about the crudity of action comics. It is what it is, and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had from much lesser things than this. I'm just trying to put across what Slaine is all about. I'm only writing at all because I needed an excuse to post some art by Clint Langley, the twisted genius who's currently drawing Slaine.
Dude, what the HELL is all this stuff? Langley certainly isn't making "good comics art" -- his over-rendered, mushily colored work is about as far from cartoon as I've seen the medium go without being outright fumetti. This kind of computer-gradient saturated, digitally-posed sequential imagery is fantastically ugly to me, an almost immoral distortion of the basis comics have in landscape and figure drawing. It's also immediately apparent that 2000AD's printing isn't even close to the dpi level of Langley's computer screen: this stuff is as fuzzed out as screen shots from a cheap TV. It has a complete lack of discernible craft elements, a total absence of the human hand or organic tools in its creation -- no ink or graphite or brush hairs or paint tubes here, just a guy pushing buttons. But there's still something really magical about it to me, something in the ugliness that goes so far into itself that it comes out aesthetically pure, hard as diamond. In the boogery, blood-soaked milieu of Slaine, it's the easiest thing in the world to believe that Langley isn't going for anything that will please the eyes. Instead, this is high-impact, "realist" comics art that shudders and buckles under its own massive bulk, an extreme oddity of the form that simply happens to be speaking a truncated version of the language Kirby and Eisner and Kurtzman were fluent in.
And yet the car-crash aspect of it still doesn't quite get at what I like so much about Langley's work. This stuff isn't Clayton Crain, it's not even attempting the same flow and naturalistic feel of most action comics. Langley's best panels feature actual posed photographs of human heads (those of models, I'd imagine, though I really prefer to imagine that the cast of crusties that populates Slaine are just its artist's friends and drinking buddies), welded onto computer-modeled bodies, often slapped in right alongside some bracingly artificial digital element, a monster or landscape right out of Shrek. There's such a dissonance between the photos (themselves a whole different type of naturalistic art) and the computerized drawing, such a practiced inelegance of combination between the two, that I wonder if Langley isn't making a truly weird, oddly innovative attempt at lo-fi. It helps to see it that way when the Slaine feature shares space in a few issues with a Brendan McCarthy Judge Dredd story that's got panels like this...
...which is digital artifice taken to another point of extremity that couldn't look more different but shares the same joy in putting rude, raw plastic pixelized art on the page. Langley's incorporation of photography brings his work as close to collage as it is to comics, and that puts us in a whole new realm: artcomix. This ridiculously overdone thing Langley has going, this deformed triumph of style over substance, these mixed-media pages that can't even hold a sequence for the level of visual noise they lay down -- you really want to know what they remind me of most?
They remind me of the way I felt when I first discovered the work of artists like Joe Grillo and Paper Rad (above) in Kramers Ergot: a total sense of dislocation from how I'd previously known comics to work, a simultaneous frustration and perverse glee in seeing someone bashing the art form this hard, this wrong. Not that Langley is an auteur on the level of those artists, not that this is great and lasting work, not that you should even go to the Herculean labor that it takes to find an issue of 2000AD these days to check hi stuff out... but wow. If you do, you really should. Clint Langley is making comics art that breaks all the rules and manages to hang to a distinct, fascinating identity of its own beyond just "sucking". It's the best example I've seen in quite some time of how weird comics can get, and I, personally, crave those random collisions with the bizarre that comics can give out as much as any of the medium's more wholesome delights.